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Pandemic puts in-person work of Clark County therapists, clients on hold

There’s something special about visiting the therapist for Denise Weston.

Weston, a 68-year-old Vancouver resident diagnosed with bipolar II, meets every six weeks with Justin Farrell, a therapist who co-owns Clark County’s Real Life Counseling with Joe Klemz. She has learned how to manage bipolar II on a daily basis, in large part because of therapy.

Now her therapy sessions have evolved into “What’s on your mind?” as Weston puts it.

“You’ve got somebody who is completely impartial, and you can say whatever you want,” Weston said. “It takes a while to develop that trust, but once you do, it starts to bleed into your life.”

As the world continues to be altered during the coronavirus pandemic, so has the sacred one-on-one, in-person meetings of therapists and their clients.

As soon as the pandemic became something that was going to stick around, Klemz began to wonder: “Can we still provide care and be able to quarantine ourselves?”

The answer so far has been affirmative, because Klemz and Farrell are seeing about 90 percent of their patients through virtual appointments, which includes phone calls and video calls.

“It’s functioning just like it would in a normal session,” Klemz said. “It’s keeping those relationships alive.”

Weston said this route “is safer and better for everybody,” but acknowledged that it will be different once she has her first virtual session with Farrell.

“It’s going to be weird, but because I have developed a good relationship with him, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” Weston said. “It’s a distance thing. You can kind of look in someone’s eyes still, but not really.”

Tracy Tassio, a 43-year-old Vancouver resident, said she will miss the face-to-face aspect of therapy, especially because it provided special alone time away from her home and family.

“That was my time,” Tassio said. “This makes it difficult because I can’t get away. I’m looking forward to going back in the office when this is all over.”

Mackenzie Dunham, co-owner and chief clinical officer of Wild Heart Society, has gone completely to virtual visits, which is challenging because she works with many kids, who require more engaging therapy.

“Therapy feels a lot more boring,” Dunham joked. “We’re trying to figure out ways to make it creative to make them still want to participate.”

Some younger clients miss the privacy of meeting in her office. They might have to sneak outside to a car, or somewhere else in their house for a call.

Dunham has noticed that some kids are worried about school closures. She’s counseling avid athletes, who miss competition and camaraderie; theater kids, whose lives revolve around the stage; and transgender kids, who are more able to be themselves at school than they are at home.

Dunham said it’s important for kids to reach out to someone who can help them if they’re encountering abuse. The pandemic has stripped teachers and counselors of the ability to keep eyes on kids and their situations regularly.

“There’s going to be a lot of protective safety nets missing now,” Dunham said.

One positive Dunham has seen is that kids are reaching out to each other through technology. It might be odd, but social media has, in some cases, actually been helpful for kid’s mental health during the pandemic. Dunham still stresses internet safety, and not overloading on social media, but kids can share videos and keep in touch. She asks them to skip texting, and make a call instead.

“Social distancing does not necessarily mean social isolation,” Dunham said. “The best thing we can do is stay connected.”

That’s exactly what Weston has done with her friends and family. A few years ago Weston was more reclusive, but therapy has made her more excited to talk with and see people. Generally she needs alone time to “recharge her batteries,” as she says. But now, she’s searching for connection.

Weston is video calling friends and family, who are struggling with isolation. Recently she called five friends and family all in one day.

“I’m reaching out and helping somebody,” Weston said. “It made me feel really good.”


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